Police would no longer be allowed to pull over drivers for roughly a dozen traffic offenses, including not wearing seat belts, having expired registrations or inspections, or having faulty plate lights, under  bill proposed by a South Portland lawmaker.

The bill is aimed at reducing racial profiling by eliminating pretextual traffic stops that affect people of color at higher rates than white motorists. Pretextual traffic stops are those in which an officer pulls over a vehicle for a minor offense to investigate something else.

But police say the proposal would will make the roads less safe and remove tools used to get drinken drivers off the road. Others warn that making seat belt and child safety seat violations a lower priority for police would lead to more traffic injuries and deaths, or that the bill would reduce vehicle registration revenues because of a drop in enforcement.

Motorists could still be cited for the infractions if the bill becomes law, but the violations could not be the primary reason for stopping a vehicle.

The bill, L.D. 1479, had a public hearing before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Thursday and will undergo a work session on Monday.

The sponsor, Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, said Friday that she may offer an amendment Monday to address concerns about reducing seat belt and child safety seat violations to secondary offenses, which means drivers could only be cited if they’re also penalized for a more serious violation. And she hopes to work with Maine State Police and other opponents over the weekend to find more common ground.


“It’s important to keep this discussion happening regardless of what happens to it,” Morales said, adding that some young drivers, especially people of color, do not feel safe behind the wheel.

Morales said the bill is designed to protect the rights of drivers, who often consent to vehicle searches after being pulled over for minor offenses such as having plate lights out, traveling in the left passing lane, or having necklaces or masks dangling from their rearview mirrors. The bill would allow officers to cite drivers for certain administrative or equipment infractions only if that driver has committed a more serious public safety violation.

“It seeks to balance the interest of those who are disproportionately arrested in their person or vehicle through traffic stops and many times let go as a result of the enforcement of administrative and equipment violations,” Morales said.

Civil rights attorneys were more explicit about whom the bill is meant to protect.

Attorney Jeremy Pratt, president-elect of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the measure is a narrower version of a similar bill passed last year by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills.

“Pretext stops disproportionately affect people of color and poor people,” Pratt said. “This is supported by data from the federal government, multiple studies, and a multitude of law review articles. Pretextual stops are simply an end run around an individual’s right to be free from government intrusion.”


Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion, pushed back on the notion that police officers in Maine were targeting people of color and poor people when conducting traffic stops.

“That’s so far from the truth in the state of Maine,” said Cyrway, a retired sheriff’s deputy. “When they make a stop it’s because of something that happened, whether it’s a light out or whatever.”

Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said Maine is not immune from national trends or implicit racial bias. He said that Black people in Maine are four times as likely to be arrested for possessing cannabis than white people and 12 times more likely to be arrested in York County.

Kebede also noted how Maine State Trooper John Darcy was recorded describing a Black driver he pulled over as looking like “a thug” because “he’s wearing a wife beater,” or white tank top, and “he’s got dreads.” Darcy pulled over the motorist for driving in the center lane of the turnpike without passing any vehicles.

“The biases that exist in other people throughout the country also exist here and we have to accept that,” Kebede said.

Data about racial profiling in Maine is hard to come by. Lawmakers passed a bill last year requiring police departments to collect racial data of people who are are stopped for traffic infractions. Mills allowed the law to take effect without her signature. But that law doesn’t take effect until July 1, 2023.


Some Maine police departments, including Portland and South Portland, have analyzed data on arrests and race and found clear disparities. In Portland, for example, Black people represented 8 percent of the city’s population in 2019 but 17 percent of arrests, a disparity that mirrors national data.

Maine State Police Lt. Bruce Scott said the proposed bill would make the roads less safe and make it more difficult for police to conduct investigations. He said a majority of drunken driving arrests are made after drivers are pulled over for minor infractions and he noted that Timothy McVeigh, the man behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was arrested after being pulled over for not having a registration plate.

“Some great police work can derive from a simple traffic stop,” Scott said.

Scott also contended that police would not be able to pull over a vehicle that had something as a large as a kite hanging from the rearview mirror. But Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, suggested Scott’s testimony seemed “a little extreme.”

“Wow, that was quite the testimony,” Warren said. “I was surprised when you brought up Timothy McVeigh.”

Both the Maine Medical Association and the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety testified against reducing seat belt and child safety seat violations to secondary offenses, worrying that fewer people would wear them, which could lead to more driving fatalities and injuries.

The Secretary of State’s Office was neutral on the bill, though the office echoed concerns raised by the Maine Municipal Association about the bill leading to a loss of revenue because fewer people may choose to register their automobiles in a timely manner.

MMA representative Rebecca Graham said her group opposes the bill because it would likely lead to a loss of revenues used to maintain safe roads and sidewalks in municipalities, while eliminating “opportunities” for police to educate young drivers. She said these decisions should be left to the local leaders.

“Municipal officials believe removing tools for law enforcement to provide learning opportunities to young drivers, protect pedestrians, provide much needed adherence to resident obligation to provide for the maintenance of roads through their mandatory excise tax payments is the wrong path to follow,” Graham said in her written testimony.

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